Author: Maxx

This is what OnLive needs

We’ve discussed previously the potential of OnLive versus the “right now” reality of the service. Currently it allows you to run the popular games of today, all of which you can just as easily play on most computers or home consoles. What OnLive really needs to offer are games, or game-related programs, that are too graphically or bandwidth intense for the average gamer’s budget. This is the sort of thing OnLive needs:

Imagine that physics engine powering games on OnLive. Just imagine it powering interactive tech demos for that matter. I could spend hours just making virtual dirt fall onto irregular surfaces, or watch virtual chocolate Easter bunnies melt near an open flame. As someone who has already spent countless hours just playing with simple physics stuff like this, not to mention many hours spent in “real” games like Red Faction: Guerrilla, I could definitely get sucked into something like this. It’ll be many years before home consoles or affordable computers could run such intense simulations, but OnLive could theoretically offer this right now. They already have stuff like this supposedly in the works:

Now Playing: OnLive

Let’s just cut straight to the nitty gritty. Does OnLive work as promised? Yes. It actually does exactly what the company claimed. It runs on virtually any computer. It allows you to jump right in to any game without installing, patching, or configuring. It gives you a perfect image that’s comparable to an HDTV running at 720p. It runs without any lag or noticeable delay.

That is… as long as you have sufficient bandwidth.

Yes, OnLive works as advertised, with the one conceit that both your bandwidth is high, and the servers aren’t over burdened. If the connection isn’t perfect, the illusion isn’t quite perfect. At best, it’s like you’re playing a game on a high-end computer. At worst, it’s like playing an interactive YouTube video running at full screen with a dying controller. The graphics can look very pixelated, the controls can have a very noticeable delay, and the sound can even lag behind the video. Fortunately, this has mostly been the exception in my experience.

There are a handful of games currently available to choose from. There’s not much consistency in their prices or purchase methods. Some can be bought outright, some can be bought or rented, while some can only be rented but not purchased. Rentals give you the game for a few days, while purchases give you access to the game until at least the year 2013. And that’s one of the big issues with OnLive. Games you buy aren’t permanently yours. You’re either renting or leasing, essentially. The prices of these games are also an issue. You might expect that these non-permanent games would be cheaper than what they would be at retail. You should think again. The prices are exactly in line with what the same games go for at retail, or Steam for that matter.

Questionable value aside, OnLive works incredibly well on a technical level. It’s difficult not to totally geek out when it’s running. You can select any game on the service and just jump right in. Many of the games have 30 minute timed demos that you can initiate at any time. Besides playing the games, you can access the Arena. The Arena is a big, endless wall of videos. Each video is a game being played by someone else right at that very moment. You can make any of these videos go fullscreen and just watch other people’s games. Of course, other people can do the same to you, but you can easily disable them from doing so if it bothers you.

My OnLive account came with one free game. I chose Borderlands, because it seemed like it would last me quite a while, and because it was one of the few games that I didn’t already have on a console. Playing it with the mouse and keyboard, especially when the connection isn’t 100%, is less than ideal. The precision of a mouse combined with just a little bit of lag makes for an experience that could make you nauseous. Playing with a controller, on the other hand, it’s barely noticeable that you’re actually playing a game on a server hundreds of miles away. I’ve played Borderlands on OnLive for the last two nights straight, and both times I eventually forgot I wasn’t playing a game running on my own computer. That is impressive.

Does OnLive have a future? I can’t say. I’m not really sure the business model can support itself. They need a lot more games, and a much better pricing scheme (see: Netflix). On the other hand, the technology delivers and makes you realize that, hey guess what, we’re living in the future now! Hopefully OnLive will stick around, I’d like to see it take off.

Now Playing: Prismatic Solid (Xbox 360)

Say what you will about the deluge of sub-par games that seem to make up the entirety of the Indie Games channel on the Xbox 360. Among the virtual fireplaces, avatar based games, and dating simulations, there are some diamonds in the rough that make the service’s existence justified. Enter: Prismatic Solid. Possibly the most impressive Indie Game there is.

Coded by just one man, a Japanese game programming veteran, Prismatic Solid would be just as impressive had a whole team of people created it. The visuals, gameplay, and level design are light years ahead of most Indie Games, let alone most XBLA and PSN games. Just watch the video to get a good idea of how it looks.

It’s very impressive to look at, but is the game actually any good? I spent quite a bit of time with it already and I can attest that it’s a very competent shooter. You control a ship (the green one in the video), which has three little guardians that fly alongside it. You can switch between different weapons at any time, which changes both the types of attacks you do, and the location of your guardians. Some of the most powerful attacks leave your ship exposed, while others trade off direct firepower for better protection, which is essential given how many bullets fill the screen at times.

It’s a fun game and isn’t too terribly difficult. It’s also not a very long game, but stick with it after you finish the stages and you’ll find that the game repeats, only the stages have a different visual style the second time through, along with different and more powerful enemies. I have no idea how far the game goes. I’ve only made it 1 and a half times through so far. There’s some stages in the video that I’ve yet to encounter, so there could be more to it than I’ve even witnessed.

Prismatic Solid is available now for only 80 points. Don’t even try it, just buy it! The animations that play at the main menu are worth $1 alone.

Done Playing: Heavy Rain Demo (PS3)

The demo for the long-in-development PS3 exclusive, Heavy Rain, is finally available for all to download. Having played, and mostly loved, developer Quantic Dream’s previous title, Indigo Prophecy, I’ve been anticipating and kind of dreading Heavy Rain’s arrival. Indigo Prophecy was great in many respects, but also fairly bad in others. So, how did Heavy Rain turn out?

It turns out that Heavy Rain inherited both the good and bad traits of Indigo Prophecy. The animations are still pretty stiff. I never got the impression from the demo that characters were actually interacting with objects or each other. On top of that, the voice acting was really awful. The voice actors are non-Americans, despite the entire game taking place in America. It certainly shows. One of the main characters, Norman Jayden, has a distinctly unidentifiable accent, complemented with unnecessary pauses and inflections. Think of Christopher Walken doing an impersonation of himself, and you’ve got a good idea what Norman sounds like.

On the other hand, Heavy Rain controls very well. On-screen prompts constantly appear. Most of these are in the form of lines and arrows, indicating that you can make a specific motion with the right analog stick. Other times you’re given the option to press the face buttons, either individually or in tandem, or shake the whole controller. It’s a neat way of interacting with a game, giving you constantly changing context-sensitive ways to control it. On the other hand, you often won’t know what each button press or controller movement will do until you input the command.

One thing I can’t help but be hyper critical of is just how dated this game looks. Back in 2006, when the first tech demo for this game was shown, I thought it looked jaw-dropping gorgeous. It was so good looking, it helped spark the infamous debate over digital actors and the “uncanny valley.” Now that we’re in 2010, computer animation has come a long way. The little movie called Avatar jumped right over the uncanny valley. Even games, such as Uncharted 2 and Modern Warfare 2, showed just how believable digital humans can appear to be with a high quality level of animation. Heavy Rain looks decidedly ancient by comparison, which is a bummer.

I’d like to give the game a final verdict based on the demo, but unfortunately I can’t. I’m on the fence with it, but I’m leaning towards the “buy” side. Although you’ll get no sense of it from the demo, the full game supposedly has a very deep and emotional story. Combine that with a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure level of non-linearity, and you have me interested. Heavy Rain is due out on Feb. 23.

Morally Effective, Too

I was going to do a post today about what I think of my first two days spent with Mass Effect 2 (here’s a hint, I really like it). Instead, I’m going to save that for another day and focus for now on the game’s morality system. As was true with the first Mass Effect, morality plays a big part of your galaxy spanning adventure. Oftentimes in conversations, of which there are many, you have the choice of making Shepard respond with a positive, neutral, or negative tone. Choose the “good” answer and you win positive karma, which builds you into a Paragon. Choose the “bad” answer and you lose karma, sliding you towards being a Renegade. Choose the “neutral” response and, well, your disposition doesn’t go anywhere.

I mostly don’t have any issue with this system of interaction. I like being able to play out events in different ways to get every possible outcome. What I’m not big on is the fact that you’re incentivized to go Paragon or Renegade. On my first play through of Mass Effect 2, I’m going the paragon route. I choose to earn those all important karma points every chance I get when having conversations, automatically picking the “good” response as soon as it appears. The problem is, that’s not how I would really behave in real life. Out of the three possible responses, the good choice sounds too namby pamby, the bad choice sounds too hateful, but the neutral choice… that one usually sounds just right. You earn nothing tangible by choosing to play it down the middle, though, so it’s really a non-option. That’s a real shame.

What I think I’d really like is a conversation system that’s somewhere between what this game has, and what Dragon Age offered. The choices were much more varied in Dragon Age, and much more ambiguous. Shades of good and evil, paragon or renegade, were much harder to define in that game. That said, the efficiency of getting through conversations in real time in Mass Effect is something I would hate to lose. There’s a lot to be said for an RPG that lets you talk without having to stop and read through multiple sentences of text.

In any case, my Shepard will finish this game as a good two shoes. He’ll then immediately relive his adventure, choosing to be the galaxy’s biggest jerk. I kinda can’t wait to see the hilarious consequences of Renegade Shepard’s actions. Paragon Shepard can be kind of a bore at times.